The Surprising Upside to Prenatal Stress

While older studies link stress in pregnancy with everything from low birth weight to autism, a newer study says it could actually make your baby stronger.

Stressed Pregnant Woman
Pregnancy is inevitably stressful, thanks to crazy hormonal shifts, the intense protective instinct that kicks in for your little one and a to-do list that just keeps growing. But there's some good that comes with any stress you feel: According to recent research, stressing out during pregnancy might just make your baby tougher.

The stress switch

Researchers studied concentrations of maternal stress hormones along with symptoms of depression and general adversity during pregnancy. Their findings were surprising: They observed that stress was linked to epigenetic changes in the child—specifically, the oxytocin receptor gene, which controls social behavior and adaptations, is activated more easily thanks to those stress hormones. The upside of this? The children with this highly activated oxytocin were more resilient and better able to handle challenges than babies of chiller mamas. 

Think of it as a switch: Whether or not a gene can be activated is dependent on methyl groups that attach themselves to the DNA and switch it off. The researchers found that the children of mothers who had increased stress levels had less methylation around the oxytocin receptor than others—which means oxytocin was able to function freely in them. Oxytocin has several functions—the gene also facilitates mother-child bonding.

Professor Gunther Meinlschmidt observed 100 mothers and their children. He looked at umbilical cord blood samples and studied the levels of cortisol, which is the stress hormone. The researchers also took reported instances of stressful life events and mental health of the women they studied.

Lasting effects?

There's a catch to their findings, though: Researchers only analyzed data of newborns, so no conclusions could be drawn about this effect later in life.

"Resilience research in this area is only at the beginning," Professor Meinlschmidt said. The observations may provide the first evidence that an adverse environment during pregnancy could also activate protective mechanisms. "We need a comprehensive understanding of the psychological processes that allow humans to sustain long-term health even over generations despite adversities."